Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rebekah, Hobby Lobby and the Word of the Lord that will heal the village

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, July 6, 2014

“If you want to kill a village, rape the women. If you want to heal the village, you heal the women.” (Becca Stevens)

So did you hear the reading from Genesis this morning?

I know you listened to it, but did you really hear it? Did you hear what was going on there?

Let me recap:

Abraham sends his slave to go find a wife for his son, Isaac. He travels to a distant land and God guides him to Rebekah, drawing water at the well, The slave asks her for a drink then asks her not who she is but who she belongs to. Then he puts a ring on Rebekah’s nose, and bracelets on her arms.

Then our lectionary skips an important bit. That’s the part where the slave takes Rebecca to her brother, Laban, and negotiates the price he will pay him and his family for her. Then he takes Rebekah back to Isaac and we are told that “Isaac took Rebekah, she became his wife, he loved her and he was comforted after his mother’s death.”

We heard this story a few minutes ago. And after the reader was done, she said “The Word of the Lord” and we all said “Thanks be to God.”

What today we might call human trafficking – a woman literally sold from one family to another and taken away forever to be given as property to a man far away. And we say “The Word of the Lord” and “Thanks be to God.”

Are we even listening? Are we even paying attention?

“Yeah, but that was a long time ago,” we say. It’s like that story of the binding of Isaac, where Abraham literally ties his son up, lays him on an altar and stands with a knife over him ready to kill him before God intervenes. And we say “Yeah, but that was a long time ago. That’s the OLD Testament. We are much more civilized, much more progressive today.”

Rebekah being sold by Laban to Abraham to be given to Isaac? “That story has nothing to do with us.”

Or does it?

This week, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby and other so-called “closely held” corporations were exempt from covering contraceptives for female employees if such coverage was contrary to their religious beliefs.

There was an immediate outcry, primarily but not exclusively, from women.

I am not a constitutional scholar and this pulpit is not a place for partisan debate.  But the outcry – that’s something different. Regardless of your opinion about the ruling as a constitutional matter, the outcry from women in its wake is a voice we must listen to – because it has everything to do with the reading we just heard from Genesis and our response of the Word of the Lord and Thanks Be To God.

That outcry has everything to do with us not being as far from the story of Rebekah and Isaac and not as close to the life Christ calls us into as many of us, particularly we men, might think and hope.

The truth is that for many women, regardless of the facts of the case or the specifics of the constitutional issues involved, this ruling feels like just one more instance of a bunch of men playing Abraham, Laban and Isaac – telling a woman that she has no power over her destiny, her employment and even her own body.

Feels and, in fact, is one more instance of a global culture that if not as hostile toward women as it was in the time of Genesis, is certainly hostile enough.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, consider this:

Globally, violence against women and girls remains epidemic.. “Dowry deaths” – when brides cannot meet the financial demand of her dowry – and “honor killings” -- when women are killed for bringing shame to their families; including killing as punishment for adultery or even for being the victim of rape -- are still regular occurrences in many countries.

But that’s the world. Certainly here in America we’re much more progressive. Well, right here at home, one in five young women experience intimate partner violence and St. Louis is a top 20 city for sex trafficking.

Who controls the world’s wealth? In the U.S., the median annual income for women working full time is 23 percent lower than for their male counterparts. And only 13 of the largest 500 corporations in the world have a female CEO.

Who makes the world’s laws? Globally, less than 20 percent of national legislators are women with the U.S. Congress in the lower half at 18.5%.

Who pastors our churches? In only a small fraction of Episcopal dioceses and an even smaller fraction of large Episcopal congregations and Cathedrals are women bishops, deans or rectors.

So when the Court ruled that Hobby Lobby could deny women contraceptive care – regardless of what the facts of the case are or whether it’s constitutional or statutory, many women reacted with weary rage.

Why? Because this has been going on since Rebekah, Laban and Isaac.

Why? Because when the plaintiff in the case uses their faith in Jesus as justification for denying health care to women, it sounds an awful lot like “The Word of the Lord” and “Thanks be to God.”

St. Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” But sometimes words are necessary. We can’t just be silent in the face of a world that continues to treat women as less than full images of God. We can’t just tell the story of Rebekah and Laban and Isaac and pretend we haven’t heard what we’ve heard and say “The Word of the Lord” and “Thanks be to God” and go on with the liturgy.

So where do we go from here? How can the Word of the Lord be redeemed? How can we tell our story in a way that lets us offer a full-throated “Thanks be to God?”

We need look no further than Rebekah herself.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously noted “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” and Rebekah is no exception. Because there is a Rebekah that we don’t meet in this morning’s reading. A Rebekah who hears a Word of the Lord and acts upon it. A Rebekah who, thanks be to God, was not well behaved and who indeed did make history.

For Rebekah does not just quietly resign herself to the way things are. When she becomes pregnant with twins, they struggle within her. And Rebekah “inquires of the Lord” why her pregnancy was so difficult.

Rebekah inquires of the Lord. This is the first instance in the Bible of a woman approaching God asking for an explanation. To our ears it might not seem like anything, but then it was unheard of. It is bold and courageous. And when she does God gives her a message that will shape the rest of history. God says to Rebekah:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’ “

God doesn’t give this message to Abraham or to Isaac, he gives it to Rebekah, the bold mother of nations. And Rebekah takes this information and she continues, thank God, not to be well behaved. She orchestrates the deception of her husband that causes him to bless the younger son, Jacob, instead of the older son, Esau – thus fulfilling the word God had given to her that the elder shall serve the younger. Taking the power arrangement of the way things are and turning it completely on its head.

Yes, scripture gives us the story of Abraham and the slave, of Rebekah, Laban and Isaac – because that’s the way things were. But scripture also gives us the rest of the story of Rebekah to let us know that just because that’s the way things were doesn’t mean that’s the way things are supposed to stay. That power relationships, even ones that have been in place for thousands of years, should not be and in fact are not unchangeable. And that, just as with Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, regardless of what the men in power might think, if you want a Word from God to take root and bear fruit, give it to a woman.

There are legitimate constitutional and statutory questions about the extent of freedom of religion in this country. And reasonable and faithful people can and do disagree on limits and remedies.

But that is not what this decision and this week are about. What we should take from the week just past should have less to do with freedom of religion and the court’s decision and everything to do with the outcry in its wake. The truth is the story of Rebekah, Laban and Isaac is not as far from today’s reality as we might think, and the life Christ calls us into, a life of mutuality and traditional power relationships turned on their head is not as close at hand as many of us, particularly we men, might think and hope.

But there is hope. There is Good News. There is a Word ofo the Lord to which we can say “Thanks be to God.”

The subjugation of women that has gone on since before the time of Rebekah and Isaac is ancient and insidious. We have long known, as Becca Stevens says, “if you want to kill a village, rape the women.” But now we are learning something else. We are learning that, in Becca’s words, “if you want to heal the village, you heal the women.”

We are learning it through movements like the one Becca started and we are embracing of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, where women who have been bought and sold like Rebekah, also like Rebekah have against all odds taken power into their own hands and become transformative agents of the power of God.

We are learning it through nations like Rwanda. After the genocide, Rwanda passed a law mandating that at least 50% of the seats in parliament be held by women. They did this because they knew that if they were not only to survive but thrive as a nation they needed the gifts and talents of all Rwandans. Today, they are the only nation with a majority female legislature and they have one of the 12 fastest growing economies on the planet.

We are learning it through women everywhere who like Rebekah are boldly asking God “explain to me why this is so hard” and to whom God is giving Words of the Lord to bear that will change the world.

As a church, our call is not to push those voices down and tell them to just behave but to raise those voices up, to listen to the cries, to seek out and embrace the women who are not well behaved who will continue to make history. As a church, our call is to proclaim with one loud voice that any theology or interpretation of scripture that denies women rights or would treat women as anything less than full images of God must be rejected as contrary to Christ.

As a church, our call is to stop the raping of women that kills the village and to participate in the healing of women that saves the village.

And that is the Word of the Lord.

Let the church say, “Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Something to really think about -- the comparison between women's lives in the Old Testament and 2014. Unfortunately we seem to have lost whatever ground we gained in the 60's. Thanks Mike for putting this out there!